Frances Hardinge has the whole package – her plots are sinuously creative, her characters are full of light and shade, and her writing is beautifully crafted without feeling in the least bit labored. I gushed about Cuckoo Song a while back, but sadly have not written reviews of her earlier books; I would encourage you to seek them out, particularly the two Mosca Mye books, Fly by Night and Fly Trap, which are as brilliant as her other books, plus are snortingly funny.
And here is a review of her latest, which was shortlisted for the UK’s prestigious Carnegie prize. The Lie Tree has all Hardinge’s signature creativity, smart and stylish writing, and deep characterization, woven into a gloriously evoked Victorian mystery.
The Lie Tree is set in the late 1860’s, 9 years after the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. With disgrace in the natural history world looming, the ramrod proper Reverend Erasmus Sunderly has taken his family to Vane, a fictitious Channel Island, under the pretext of getting involved in a cave excavation there. But the scandal follows them to Vane and now, ostracized by the local gentlemen naturalists, the Reverend behaves erratically, as he seeks to hide and protect a plant specimen that he believes has fantastic powers.
His daughter, 14-year-old Faith, is the novel’s protagonist and is a typical Hardinge creation: outwardly she is “dull. prim, shy” with “wooden features and a mud-brown plait”, but inwardly she seethes with ‘unladylike’ intelligence and curiouslty, which she both relishes and is nauseated by. Told by her father that “A girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can. If she is not good, she is nothing”, she strives to fit in, but her acuity won’t let her as events on the island take a dramatic turn.
The setting and contemporary mores are crucial to this novel, particularly the perception of women as lesser than men. As one character comments the female mind is “quite delightful in its own right! But too much intellect would spoil and flatten it, like a rock in a soufflé.” On the verge of adulthood herself, Faith sees her mother using coquettish charm to bend men to her will, and burns at the humiliation of it, without realizing that Myrtle is using one of the few tools allowed to her.
And I’ve gone all this way without even mentioning that this is a fantasy novel. The Mendacity Tree of the title is a marvelous creation at the center of the plot, as well as being a device to give devious power to Faith.
But for me, this is more about the emergence of a young woman accepting herself, using her sharp mind, and preparing to take society head on. Ideal for readers who want to do the same.
Just a note on the American cover: Did the illustrator actually read the book?